Jomo: Enemy circles (Novel) – Season one, Episode 3

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This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Enemy Circles - Season One

Jomo, a young nomadic man was betrothed to a fellow clan’s girl, Bonajo, and they were to be married during the merriment of reuniting at the designated reunion camp in mountains of central Africa. Unfortunately, a huge war campaign was to prevent that simple thing from happening until after more than three years.

A FEW WEEKS EARLIER, AT SONGHAI’S CAPITAL CITY

Fine sand continued blowing, covering the freshly swept mud floors and low benches surrounding the courtyard. Royal guards in turbans and flowing short-sleeve gowns hastily clear ways, as the Great Askia of the Songhai Empire made way into the main court.

Askia Ishaq Muhammadu was a man of considerable height; not surprisingly, though. For a Songhai tribes-man, his features fell in-between those of an afro-Semitic and a sub-Saharan Negro. He was a handsome dark brown skinned man with big, bright eyes and full wide lips. Eloquence and power oozed from his very being in his habitual bright turban and sparklingly white flowing gown, with a few lines of contrasting black geometric embroidery at the rectangular neck of his babban riga – a kind of a robe worn by men of power and Islamic knowledge of the Sahara and sub-Sahara kingdoms – with its matching turban. He presented a wealthy, knowledgeable and powerful king. It was not just an impression; the Askia was an Islamic professor. He studied at the famous Timbuktu Sankore University; an institution of learning reserved for princes, sons of the Jullas – the wealthy salt and gold merchants and the foreign Arabic and Greek researchers.

Enemy Circles on Memorila
Enemy Circles on Memorila

As the emperor of the big empire of Songhai, which covered nearly one and a half million square kilometres from the water of the Atlantic coast in the west to the Hausa lands in the east, Askia Ishaq Muhammadu was both respected and feared by neighbouring kingdoms for both the reasons of his empire’s wealth and military might. While the nomads and other people of his empire were worried about the drought that had struck the larger part of the empire last year, rendering many areas dry and without food, the Askia was worried for more than just one reason. He was able to sense an undercurrent of instability within and without the empire. Though, Wazir, Mallam Gabda – court first adviser and a very shrewd man – would tell him not to worry about that, in his opinion there was no any threat to the empire, none whatsoever.

The last decade had toiled the empire by famine and disease affliction. Though that was over, it would yet take quite some time to recover from the effects. Slave trade, one of the major transactions in the empire centre, had declined because – as God would have it – the slave tribes were the worst hit hard by the disease. The Arab buyers stopped buying them to avoid contracting such diseases. Moreover, the famine had caused a food shortage and induced vices like robbery and insurgency, particularly by the notorious Tuareg tribes in the east. These, the Askia believed, were preambles to a bigger disaster.

The Askia knew better than to listen to a lavished Wazir and relax at the face of a probable danger. He dispersed spies within and outside the vast empire to piece together information of a possible rebellion or invasion or any other danger he was sure was lurking somewhere. He knew the status of the Songhai Empire was at the weakness side. This vulnerability was a good opportunity for the prying kingdoms nearby to try and invade them, in order to take control of the empire’s wealth. The threat can come particularly from the Maghreb Kingdom, the seat of the Saadis and the most powerful kingdom nearby. It had been expanding across the ocean into Abyssinia. Its proximity to his empire, and unfortunately the rich salt mines that create large revenue to the Songhai Empire, was so enticing that common sense couldn’t just ignore. The Maghreb had acquired some military might through alliance with the Christian kingdoms across the sea, he soon learnt the fact that seeded his worry even more deeply.

Askia Ishaq Muhammad walked to the throne without paying much attention to the bowing heads and greetings. When he sat everybody else sat down on the ram skin mats on the sand apprehensively, and the court session began.

***

The court remained eerily silent, Askia Ishaq Muhammadu’s stare was fixated on the Qur’anic leather pouch hung on the wall, thinking.

Equally an Islamic kingdom as the Maghreb kingdom, Songhai Empire was at the face of the danger of being invaded by the former, he now had no doubt. The borders of the two large kingdoms were at an unsafe proximity, the rich mines of Taghaza belonging to the Songhai Empire invitingly sat very close to the Maghreb. The Askia knew that the Maghreb kings kept their hands to themselves for this long not because of the feeling of Islamic brotherhood but rather for the fear of the empire’s enormous strength, expanse and strangeness of the terrain, not to mention the diversity of its tribes and peoples, perhaps the Maghreb has no intention of ruling that much black people at all. All that however was about to change now that Maghreb might be needing reinforcements – capital and military. The Askia gathered that the Maghreb king is running out of finance from an extensive political and diplomatic campaign across the sea, and of course, the capital-intensive city-building project he embarked on. What could be a good opportunity of creating revenue than from the Songhai gold and salt mines? And what better opportunity of state weakness of the empire than what was happening now, particularly for somebody who waited for so long? As it turned out he was right, the great empire was indeed facing threats, according to the reports he gathered from Marrakech – the Maghreb capital – and elsewhere.

Askia received several correspondences from his spies at different locations; the recent proving the last and confirming his suspicions. Finally, when all specks of doubt were cleared, he decided to expose the results of the espionage going on for the past five months to the general audience of his court, to know the situation at their doors and begin preparation.

As is customary, Askia holds a council of chiefs’ meeting every Friday before the sermon began, to brief the court on topical issues, then proceed to the mosque for the Friday congregational prayer, in which he happened to be the imam. Regional and district vassals under Songhai administration would travel to the palace to report, get the update of the current affairs within the empire and take specific instructions from the emperor. He stressed that today’s sitting was important, all regional and district heads must be present in person. As a result the court was filled to the brim.

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After what seemed to be ages and subjects have finished paying their homage – they were expecting nothing in the world but what was about to come from him – he carefully adjusted his sitting position and signalled to the court scribe to begin,.

The airy court was a unit of the general palace comprising the harem, the stable, the mosque, the slave quarters and other necessary structures for domestic and governmental purposes. The edifice was built of hard, baked mud, with protruding dry tree bark that served both the purposes of giving mechanical strength and aesthetics to the structure. The floor of the court was covered with soft, white sand at most parts of it, at others, exotic ram hides adored the floor. On the dark brown clay walls hung different sizes of wooden slates decorated with leather tassels, carrying Qur’anic verses inside beautiful calligraphy, yet still, the Qur’anic verses were scribed on full tanned ram skins and used as wall hangings elsewhere. Dried leather pouches holding the holy Qur’an were also decoratively hanged around the walls. As rich in gold as the empire was, there was nearly not a single gold item on display in the court; save for the throne the Askia himself was sitting on. The local chiefs dressed in the same fashion of babban riga and turbans of different colours enhance the academia ambiance of the court, and mark Friday as a special religious and official day. The court had calm and serene atmosphere everywhere, except for the turmoil in the minds of its occupants.

Askia’s face was tightly screwed; save for the occasional blowing of his white gown he could pass for a life-size ebony statue on a gold throne. All his attention was devoted to the court scribe, as he launched into the series of revealing reports. Though the court was used to seeing the Askia like that for the past six months, the combination of his mood even before the scribe started reading the dreadful report created a sinister sense of suspense, making everyone unnaturally quite.

They could see now that they were wrong. They thought It was practical for him to be in a constant worry as the head of an empire afflicted by disasters, but they were hoping it would be over now that rain had graced the empire and it appeared certain that the famine might well be over. Even the pandemic was recently reported to have subsided in many regions. The disease that had been ravaging a large part of the empire killed many people, especially the slave tribes. The incidences of the disease were declining every week, reports have revealed and since things were normalizing now, why was the Askia always getting more worried? That was before now, the reports they are hearing today are giving them their own take of worries.

As the court scribe read one report after another, the court was struck with absolute silence. Wazir Gabda, slapped in the face by his naivety, was supposed to see it coming; it was his job to somehow know that the Maghreb might be planning an attack and advice the Askia accordingly. How that would elevate his status in the court. He bowed his head down, feigning concentration to the court reader like all other occupants, while actually he was rehearsing a plausible speech that he hoped could defend his lack of insight into the issue in case he was questioned. He could say that he heard a rumour about such and wanted to confirm it before he called the Askia’s attention. Or, that he was waiting for a particular caravan from the Maghreb, which is taking longer than expected to arrive, to find out from some spies he sent down there.

The last and the most recent report from Marrakech, the capital of the Saadi Kingdom, was read. Even the Wazir abandoned what he was contemplating at the gravity of this last report. Finally, the scribe reached the end of the reports and closed with a short personal prayer, seeking refuge in Allah from the calamity they are about to face.

The court’s silence, which was only interrupted by the sound of mooing camels and neighing horses every now and then from outside, intensified and threatened to create a suffocating vacuum. The silence stretched to an uncomfortable length, until the Wazir wished the Askia would blame him for everything and say something rather than keep silent.

“Bismillahhir rahmanir rahim.”

The emperor cleared his throat after another moment of silence, before he began the most awaited speech. “We don’t have much time left apparently.” He said without a preamble.

“And as sad as it is, it is not a war with an enemy; it is a war with a fellow Muslim brother. As we’ve all heard, the ‘enemy’ is at the final stages of preparation to invade us; we need no justification to fight back. We are a great empire and a great people. We help spread the words of Allah, Alhamdulillah. We instil the prophet’s most honourable tradition of knowledge propagation. In our land safety is guaranteed to any human being, be him a trader, a scholar, a student or just a traveller passing by within our borders. This has been our way of life for hundreds of years. We have to preserve it. We must not let anybody for selfish reasons deprive us of our way of life. We ask Allah to guide us through this.”

The howling of wind outside the court had stopped, all was silent and still and even the beasts seemed to be listening. Askia’s pause, though brief, was profound enough to allow him see how his words sank into the hearts of his listeners and started building courage therewith. He then turned, precisely to the chief of army staff of the empire.

“Mallam Hamma, we don’t have much time, start mobilizing troops at once. You have my order to start all preparations as you deem fit regarding our situation, and send for the regional commanders to meet me here at Gao by tomorrow at noon, when I hope our long council meeting would have been over. ”

Hamma, a tall and robust built man with huge feet and palms, couldn’t be missed as a warrior even when draped behind the fineries of bright coloured turban and babban riga. He nodded at the emperor’s command with seriousness; one could easily suspect that the man was happy with the turn of events. It was like a merchant whose wares are suddenly in urgent demand.

“Because tomorrow’s council meeting will sufficiently discuss the recruitment and other military campaigns, I want all the regional governors within a night’s ride to be here in the morning, Wazir Gabda.” The Askia said to the Wazir, who seemed to be absorbed in some matters of the mind.

Mallam Gabda was almost startled when he heard his name suddenly mentioned, he thought he won’t be involved soon, so he was still busy polishing and perfecting a speech. Even the sound of his name on the emperor’s lips sounded scolding.

“Yes, yes, your majesty. It shall be done.” Askia ignored Gabda’s jumpiness.

“We need as much soldiers as we can gather. As we all heard from the reports the enemy has a magical weapon, a weapon we never heard of and not completely known yet by our spies. As Allah would have it, we are blessed with population and we know our land, we can raise that advantage against the enemy. Not even a magical weapon can defeat multitude. This means that whatever that weapon is, we will find out in the battle field.”

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The chiefs present at the court nodded their pompous turbaned heads.

“General Hamma, we shall discuss afterwards, I will see your chiefs tomorrow and the rest will follow later.” Askia rose from the throne and said more generally to the court. “Know that from now on, we are at war; everything we do will be in that regard, assalam alaikum.”

***

The last Friday court session had practically changed all activities within Songhai Empire. At the peasant level in the capital and environs, panic and false stories about the war were traded with ardour every passing hour. The government engine was in full gear, preparing for the war ahead, and not trying to assuage any fears the masses found themselves gripped in. Wazir Gabda dispatched messengers to all regions and districts under the full governance of Songhai Empire for the purpose of tomorrow’s meeting. Messengers were sent to prominent provinces such as Djenne, Timbuktu and elsewhere within a night’s ride to Gao. The Wazir felt he couldn’t fail on anything anytime soon, if the emperor’s silence about his first blunder of assuming they were not in danger, while actually they were, was to be left alone as it was now.

Mallam Hamma had left Gao that same Friday after meeting with the Askia and headed eastward. He had so many tasks on his part to accomplish. Knowing that their chance of winning the war against the superior weapons of the Maghreb kingdom was multitude as the emperor put it; he was doing not less than any effort that would see his soldiers multiply by the second. The meeting with the commanders he was to chair had to be postponed until his return. After the emperor would have met with the regional governors the following day he would also order them to mobilize for volunteer soldiers in their respective regions. Hamma would have had a faster process of recruitment that way than any previously planned. Fiefdoms would take their orders of supplying his camps with recruits, and he would be left with their preparation and strategizing the plans within the very little time he had. That he communicated to the emperor personally after the Friday court session. He had to supervise the campaign himself, it was more important than sitting around in the city organizing meetings of regional generals and expecting things to work as theorized.  It wasn’t going to be an easy task he knew, so it’s better to get his hands dirty. If the emperor’s reports were anywhere near reliable, then they were expecting to face the enemy’s sword edge anytime from now.

Words of the imminent war had engulfed the capital Gao and nearby provinces like a wild fire. People were understandably shocked, owing to the fact that they just came through the worst of famine and drought. Now it was war! As rumours would always transform and blow out of proportion, people traded heresies that the war has begun in some part of the empire. Near pandemonium was about to break in the capital. Trade was disrupted; people began abandoning their farms and many were busy fleeing in the opposite direction to where they heard the war had begun.

Hamma expected similar reactions from the people. He was sure war was the last thing the city people would want to hear about now. That was one of the first things he predicted to the Askia and which turned out to be true. That was why he advised to launch his recruitment activities from lands afar which were least affected by the recent calamities and with so little knowledge of the imminence of the war ahead or even the nature of the enemy. In those lands, peace and prosperity was abundant. They were not touched by most of the calamities experienced at some part of the empire. Hamma needed the resources and the enabling environment for this hasty project of mass recruitment and training of the soldiers who were to fight the war. Soon after convincing the Askia, Takedda, at the eastern edge of the empire was declared the suitable location to germinate the first training camp and as the major supplying barrack.

The newly established military camp at Takedda, aside those that existed, was made a strategic headquarters location. It was well away from the only route the Maghreb invaders could make use of through the Western Sahara. To the south was the Hausa kingdoms, more or less a Songhai empire with certain degree of freedom and whom with little convincing and bribing of the lords would without doubt ally in the battle with good supply of soldiers, horses, weapons from their smiths and food from their farms.

There is one disadvantage though. The headquarters in Takedda was hundreds of leagues away from the capital where the decisions are made and where fortification was needed the most. Travelling trained soldiers to the war front in the case when it would be an emergency would take days; they might be too exhausted to fight on their arrival. Also decision made at the capital will take time to reach the cantonment to be effected.  But Hamma has no other choices. Raising a huge military campaign in the western part of the empire would only spread the panic, so that they would have to start thinking of containing the fleeing people instead of training volunteers. If they were to have a chance at winning the war they would need to be organized when it finally comes. Hamma only prayed that their disadvantage would not cost them a price of losing the war.

***

After all decision were made Mallam Hamma’s action was to reach Takedda and spring a camp for recruitment. It was more than three days of unstoppable journey from Gao. The general was exhausted on arrival but wasted not a single minute to raise the first tent in the camp. He arrived with a handful of commanders and aids and talked briefly with Takedda council members before building of the prospective camp was started. Two more days later the recruitment was going on fine. Hundreds of young men poured in by the hours. It was what Hamma envisaged. The young men had no care in the world. They felt here is an opportunity to kill more than a game, for most of them were hunter-gangs, blood-thirsty and adventure-seeking hot bloods. They smelled like ancient hide and insulted one another loudly. Hamma looked around, satisfied with what he saw; a little polishing and they are fine, he thought. On his way, he stopped by to communicate the situation in the capital to the governors whose lands were far away and couldn’t be reached with Gabda’s message, with the emperor’s request to send voluntary recruits and captives to the camp to be established in Takedda. Soon, young men started flooding in even before the first square meter of the camp side was cleared. The young enthusiastic men did the job and, voila, a training ground was started. It wasn’t anything standard. It was mainly a land cleared by the first recruits. A central office for signing in was built and every twenty recruits were to build their own shelter using whatever material they felt like. It should have been a slow process but because the recruits were eager to take badges, the camp was soon developed like a new town on a business cross-route.

“Look for Mallam Jano.” Hamma ordered the fresh sergeant standing at the door of the tent that served as his quarters. The non-ceasing sound of hammer and shouts of the training recruits was a usual reminder of the urgency of the situation the empire was facing. Some recruits were rude and lacked manners, Hamma noted. They shouted unnecessarily and japed at one another. But that was the least of Hamma’s concerns now. He wanted willing recruits and he had them, they would learn some manners by the time they reached some level of training, he told himself. Somebody threw something that landed on Hamma’s feet – one of those horse plays. They will learn manners either at the training camp or on the battle fields. Men always learn lessons after fighting a war. He told himself and ignored the volley in front of him.

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The young sergeant disappeared hastily, while Hamma flapped the shanty tent and docked inside to remove himself from the glaring sun and the juvenile sights and sounds.

Few moments later Jano entered.

“Assalam alaikum.”

Wa alaikums salam, sit down please.”

Jano joined Hamma on the straw mat spread on the cool sand of the tent interior. Other than the mat there was nothing else inside. There were papers containing the numbers and identities of the recruits stacked on the mat, though.

“You were looking for me, sir?” Jano began, after shaking hands with general Hamma three times as they touched their heart in between handshakes.

“Some lads you got out there.” Hamma began. Jano smiled knowingly.

“Yes, they are an awful lot, but we were not expecting polished Julla’s sons to start joining this soon, or seasoned soldiers with manners.”

Hamma nodded his head like he had just been enlightened. “You are right.”

“They might be brash,” Jano continued. “But they are enthusiastic and I think that’s what we need right now more than anything else, enthusiastic recruits.”

“You are right, there, too. From what I can see already, they are doing fine. For example look at this sergeant that just called you, he is ok by all standards, and we are talking of just a few days of training.”

“I don’t have any doubt the rest will be a success too. He is among the first recruits and most of his mates now are already helping with training of the more barbaric new comers.” Hamma had no doubt, too.

“Yes.  I think it’s time for me to move on to the next stage of our campaign. As we all know we don’t have the luxury of time on our side.”He tapped the paper sitting near him, admiration in his eyes. “I am content how this very stage turned out.”

“That is true. You can be rest assured that this end at this camp has been consolidated. Soon we will be able to transfer most of our recruits to new camps.”

General Hamma’s expression softened fractionally further. At the criticality of things, their first arrangement ought to be successful.

“That is why we are having this meeting. I will be leaving for Agadez this evening. You may be aware that having this small success far away from the capital is not going to be of any use unless we can consolidate it and find a way to make sure that it can be made useful there in time to serve its purpose.”

He stopped as the sergeant brought in a kettle of hot tea, put down two tiny cups and left. Hamma’s admiration at the sergeant’s manners cannot be concealed. Jano served the two of them and Hamma said “Thank you.” He continued as he picked a cup, when Jano didn’t try to comment on what he was explaining.

“Theoretically this is where the easy part of this campaign ended. Part of the trickiness of camping far away from the war zone is always the problem of communication and transportation. We may have a battalion of able-bodied soldiers here at Takedda while we are overpowered by the enemy at where it matters. My mission in Agadez is to secure their alliance and military aid for the campaign. If the enemy is to follow a route through the Sahara, and which happens to be the only possible option for them, then our alliance with Agadez will give us several advantages. One, because they are skilled desert fighters we can make a huge use of that, and two, reaching the Sahara from here through their land will be easier and as an element of surprise to the enemy. It will make the presence of war in the cities less prominent also, hence, curbing panic. Imagine having to move an army from Takedda through the cities to the prospective war front, it will be chaos, the city people will stampede themselves in an effort to run right into the enemy from the west.”

Hamma paused to take a sip of his tea and catch his breath.

“I intend to make a short cut through Agadez to the Western Sahara. Convincing the Touregs is what this mission to Agadez is going to be all about.”

Jano sipped the hot tea, feeling the hot liquid awakening his senses.

“Yes, they are always a difficult sort. Though, not tied down to the empire, this is their war as well. They should also know that if they didn’t make an alliance with us they will stand alone against the invaders sometime in the future. If they are wise they would join us to tackle the bigger menace.”

Hamma nodded as he sipped some more tea, while he contemplated on what Jano just said. Jano put his empty cup down.

“I didn’t mean to fault your judgement but I think Agadez is way off our quick reaches, not to mention the difficulty of the Sahara. Do you believe it will prove positive as you put it?”

Hamma’s cup was empty too.

“They are excellent Sahara fighters, like I said; if we could besiege the invaders in the great Sahara with the Tuaregs’s help we can easily terminate them there and then. They will have to reach the towns and cities in order make use of their evil weapons on us; whatever that is, cutting them off that chance is a good strategy on our side. It means that we have to stop them as they cross the Sahara in order to avert having to fight them at our city gates. It has to be there.”

Jano nodded, totally convinced, and began filling Hamma’s cup again.

“While I am away, I want you to go to Gobir and Kano and officially seal their alliance to us according to plans. Also discuss what we need from them, which you know what that is. Whatever it is they want in return, at the end of the war Askia is willing to concede.”

“That should be easy, then”. Jano sipped his tea. “They always cooperated, don’t they?”

“That is why I am doing the harder job of confronting the desert people instead of sending you. If both missions went well, as well as if we have at least another month before confronting the enemy, Songhai Empire will perhaps be sitting on a concrete foundation; we can begin to expect victory.”

Jano adjusted his turban to cover his mouth, after he was through with his last cup of tea. “I will do my best, general.”

Hamma covered his mouth with his turban too, abandoning the filled cup of tea in front of him.

“Prepare me five escorts; we will be leaving for the desert kingdom.”

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Series Navigation<< Enemy Circles – Season One, Episode 2Jomo: Enemy circles (Novel) – Season one, Episode 4 >>

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Bashir Kabir

Born, raised and studied in Kano State, Bashir Kabir has a degree in Physics and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Physics, all in Bayero University, Kano. He is married with a kid and currently works at Kano State Public Complaint and Anti-Corruption Kano.

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